Freeholders spar over politics, Atlantic City revival

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LONGPORT – Mayor Nicholas Russo welcomed the Atlantic County Board of Chosen Freeholders to Borough Hall on Tuesday, July 29, thanking freeholders for working to turn around Atlantic City. What followed was contentious political dialog about an ordinance designed to help hospitality workers keep their jobs.

Freeholder-at-Large Colin Bell, a Democrat, submitted legislation on July 8 that would require hospitality employers to notify the county 60 days before any potential sale and retain employees for three months following a change in ownership. At the end of the three-month holdover period, an employer could reduce the workforce, or conduct written performance evaluations to determine if an employee should continue employment.

Democrat District 1 Freeholder Ernest Coursey, who co-sponsored the ordinance, chastised the board and its attorney for not notifying Bell that the ordinance had been pulled from the agenda. According to Freeholder Chairman Frank D. Formica, who authorizes agenda items, there were legal issues with the language of the ordinance.

After Coursey called the chairman to complain about the ordinance being removed from the agenda without notifying its sponsors, Formica placed it back on the agenda.

“If there was a problem with the language, you reach out to tell the freeholders who sponsored it that it will not be on the agenda,” Coursey said.

Formica said an email containing a legal opinion about the problems with the ordinance was sent to freeholders immediately before the meeting, however Bell said he had not received it.

“Let’s not engage in governance by surprise,” Bell said. “On July 8, someone should have picked up the phone and told us what the problem is.”

Atlantic County Counsel James F. Ferguson said the intent of the ordinance was admirable, but county government does not have legal authority to regulate employers.

“This ordinance basically re-writes state law dealing with layoffs,” Ferguson said.

County governments have no legal authority to regulate layoffs and only municipal governments have police power over residents to enforce ordinances, he said.

“There is no underlying power for a county to control industry,” Ferguson said.

Even if the ordinance were re-written, it could face legal challenge, Formica said.

Bell complained that all of the ordinances he has introduced have been tabled, prompting Coursey to tell the board, “Get away from the party line and be for the people.”

Freeholder-at-Large Alex Marino, a Republican, asked how the ordinance would save jobs.

“Are we giving people three months of false hope that they will be retained? Are we putting more regulations on an industry that is already over-regulated? Are we chasing away seven or eight buyers for Showboat? When government gets involved in regulating business, it’s not good for business. This does not contribute to a pro-business culture,” Marino said.

“We are craving to help, but this is ineffectual,” Formica said.

District 4 Freeholder Richard Dase, also a Republican, said the only jobs the ordinance would save are that of attorneys.

“We cannot tie the arms of a potential buyer,” Dase said.

Coursey motioned to table the ordinance for two weeks so Ferguson and the board could come up with language that would help Atlantic City workers retain employment in light of several casino closures. Bell seconded the motion with a date certain for introduction. The motion passed 5-4, with Formica, Marino and Republicans Frank Sutton and John Risley voting against it. Bell, Coursey, Dase, James Bertino and Will Pauls voted for it.

Additionally the board passed a resolution urging Gov. Chris Christie to keep his promise not to permit expansion of casino gaming outside of Atlantic City, and refrain from executive, legislative and referendum action until Jan. 31, 2016. The resolution calls for a complete analysis of the city’s economic viability before any action is taken, and Atlantic County’s state legislators to jointly sponsor a similar resolution in the Senate and Assembly.

“There’s been talk of a referendum on the ballot. All that will do is hurt people in the hospitality industry. This is a people issue, not a partisan issue,” Coursey said. “Let the five-year plan continue. Atlantic City is thriving.”

“No deals,” Risley said. “I hope we all stand united. This is a sacred covenant between the state and Atlantic City, and it should not be broken.”

Talk of a referendum to allow casino gaming in North Jersey would chase away investors, Formica said.

The resolution passed unanimously.

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